Predictably, after a morning and afternoon spent dining and playing Monopoly with my in-laws, I spent Christmas Day evening watching Die Hard for the umpteenth time. In my chocolate and prosecco addled state I noticed, for possibly the first time, the way that the score interpolates melodic passages from various well-known Christmas songs, twisting them slightly to make them sinister or dramatic as required by the scene; yet another way in which Die Hard is a masterful film.
I’d love to use that as a way in to this post, but seeing Die Hard didn’t get me thinking about Christmas songs – I think about them every year in December – even if the closing moments and credits do feature one of my favourites.
In fact this year I was thinking about Christmas songs even before December; it was in November that I remembered my annual hunt through Exeter’s record stores for a copy of Vince Guaraldi’s excellent A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’ve had the MP3s forever, seemingly, but every time I remember to look for a real copy it’s been too late to order it online in time for Christmas and I’ve never spotted it in a shop. Not so this year; I found it online for under a tenner in late November and promptly ordered it.
That wasn’t the only Christmas record I bought this year though; the influence of my boss (and the presence of a Fopp in Exeter) crept into my purchase on Christmas Eve of Sufjan Steven’s 5 CD set Songs For Christmas. The box, replete with stickers, songbook, and other seasonal gifts, is a cornucopia for indie Christmas fans, featuring evocative, banjo-and-sleigh-bell-laden versions of numerous Yuletide standards as well as reams of Sufjan originals, many of which are very, very fine indeed. At times it gets a bit much – there are 5 CDs after all – especially when he starts singing about all the cutesy animals that came to visit baby Jesus in his manger, which makes me want to slap the twee out of him, but for the princely sum of £12 it seems churlish to moan. After all, tomorrow morning it’ll get shelved and not darken my CD player again until December 2011, affording me ample time to get over the twee. And if you can’t be a little twee at Christmas, when can you be?
So, inspired by Die Hard, Sufjan, and Vince, I have decided to concoct a list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs; after all, random googlers love a top ten list, even if this one is a week or so too late to profit my blog with hits.
Just a quick note; there are no rules for this list beyond my usual arbitrary caveat of only one song per artist, or, in this case, seasonal album. These are just my favourite songs about, or that I associate with, Christmas. So here we go, in reverse order.
10. Stop the Cavalry – Jona Lewie
Not originally intended as a Christmas song at all, but the universally emotive hook at the end of the chorus, happenstance, and something about the brass arrangement and vocal delivery of this tune have combined to make it a lesser-exposed Christmas favourite. “Wish I was at home / for Christmas” Lewie opines, not anticipating Chris Rea but empathising with all those who’ve ever found themselves serving their nation (or someone else’s) in conflicts abroad over the festive season. Stop the Cavalry must be the only Yule tune to reference Churchill, nuclear fallout, and the First World War.
9. Little Drummer Boy
I don’t care whether it’s by Low, or Sufjan Stevens, or Vince Guaraldi, or Lindström, or the Harry Simeone Chorale, or The Supremes, or The Dandy Warhols, or Destiny’s Child, or pretty much anyone else apart from New Kids On The Block or Westlife; this song is almost always lovely, and manages to evoke Christmas in pretty much every incarnation I’ve come across.
8. Cocteau Twins – Frosty the Snowman
Liz Fraser’s vocals add a chilly sense of wonder, unsurprisingly, to this standard kids’ song, but Robin Guthrie’s chiming, silvery guitars make a huge amount of sense in this context too. Of course, I can barely make out a word, but the melody is timeless and recognisable enough to make this instantly familiar even if the arrangement is pretty far away from your usual Christmas fare.
7. Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! – Sufjan Stevens
Despite only having heard it for the first time this year (just the other day on Christmas Eve, in fact), this slice of fuzzy, guitar-driven indie rock has leapt into this top ten. Maybe it’s the sleigh bells; maybe it’s the guitars; maybe it’s the repeated refrain at the end of every line (“because it’s Christmas time”); but probably it’s the backing vocals hitting those delirious “fa-la-la-la-la la-la-la-lalas” while all the other ingredients pile up like presents under an awesome tree. There are several pseudo-ironic or faintly miserablist indie originals to choose at Christmas, from Fountains of Wayne’s I Want an Alien For Christmas and Flaming Lips’ Christmas at the Zoo to Mogwai’s Christmas Song, but the earnestness and joy on display here trumps them all.
6. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses
My wife’s favourite Christmas song, this has become one of mine over the last 10 Christmases too. None more New Wave, none more cool; how can you not love a Christmas song that starts with “bah humbug” and finishes with a wry smile and an implied eggnog hug? Especially when it has those horns in the middle. Chris Butler’s songwriting and restrained riffing are faultless, but really it’s Patty Donahue’s delivery that makes it irresistible. Amazingly, Waitresses records are pretty much impossible to get hold of on CD in the UK. Please, someone, a timely December reissue in 2011.
5. Just Like Christmas – Low
Most of Low’s Christmas album sounds like a slow suicide – I can only assume from the clues given by the tempo and inflection that the leftover money referred to in One Special Gift is just enough to afford some strychnine. But this opener, from the beginning drum hit to the closing fade, actually manages to capture some of the magic of Christmas alongside the melancholy (“it wasn’t like Christmas at all”). The hazy, pseudo-Wall-of-Sound production and big kettle-drum-roll add a Spector-esque sheen that’s come to signify the time of year somehow too. Speaking of Spector…
4. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Crystals
No list of Christmas songs would be complete without at least something masterminded by the spooky bipolar murderer who ruined Let It Be. The lyric “he knows if you’ve been bad or good / so be good for goodness sake” takes on an extra level of discomfiture and unease when one knows that Spector would hold women at gunpoint if they attempted to leave his house. But still! Those pounding drums! That melody! The momentum! Spector’s Wall of Sound approach fits perfectly, and while the whole album is a bit much for an audio snob like me to take in all at once, this 3-minute snatch is perfect. Incidentally, A Christmas Gift For You was originally released on 22 November 1963, the day JFK was assassinated, and was a flop. Figures.
3. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow – Dean Martin
Die Hard contains many, many awesome Christmas songs, both interpolated into the score and played in their own right. I was so close to picking Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC (consider it this list’s number 11 choice, with Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) at 12), but really, you can’t beat Dean; the swooning strings, the romance, the images of warm fires, roasting chestnuts, and comfortable jumpers. Awesome.
2. Christmas is Coming – Vince Guaraldi
Guaraldi’s piano jazz Peanuts OST is the Christmas album I return to most of all; the classiest, most evocative of all Christmas albums, infused with familial warmth, seasonal cheer, and daylight-savings-melancholy all at the same time. It’s almost impossible to choose just one cut, because the whole thing flows together seamlessly, but if pushed I’d probably pick this composition, which seems to combine all the elements in one neat 3-and-a-half-minute package. Beautiful.
1. Troika – composed by Sergei Prokofiev
The fourth movement of the score to the 1934 film Lieutenant Kijé (directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer and based on the novel by Yury Tynyanov), this gets used every time a TV or movie producer or director wants to evoke snow and movement and the urge to get home. Having never seen or read either version of Lieutenant Kijé I have no idea of the original context at all, but this piece of music to me evokes everything wonderful about Christmas. It’s an aural equivalent of The Box of Delights, painting landscapes not just snow-covered and foreign but magical too. Sadly, the only version I possess, by the Royal Philharmonic, is a little overblown and seems shorter than my mind recalls from childhood, but at least it’s not Keith Emerson’s ridiculous synthesizer aberration. Nonetheless, Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve heard this.
I’ve literally JUST been made aware of this – CAN doing a vaguely drone-disco version of Silent Night. Had I heard this 2 hours ago I think we can safely say it would have been in this list.